Colombian rebels bring province to standstill

By Jason Webb

BOGOTA, Colombia, July 28 (Reuters) - Marxist rebel attacks have brought a southern Colombian province to a virtual standstill, leading President Alvaro Uribe to promise to move his government there if necessary to restore order.

In the past week, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia have blown up a bridge, knocked over electricity towers and ambushed military convoys in the jungle province of Putumayo, which is 10,000 square miles (25,000 square km) or almost as big as Belgium.

Gasoline prices have soared because truck drivers are too scared to venture onto its lonely highways.

"I'm not going to leave Putumayo alone. If necessary, I'll move my government here while security is restored," said Uribe after leaving an emergency meeting in the province's capital Mocoa on Wednesday evening. He then headed back to Bogota.

The government has sent additional troops to Putumayo, which borders Ecuador. An Air Force Hercules transport plane was due to arrive in the town of Puerto Asis, on Thursday with food and other supplies for the civilian population.

The attacks by the guerrilla army, known by the Spanish acronym FARC, are aimed at opening up a route to bring cocaine produced in Putumayo's jungles to the Pacific Ocean, where it can be shipped to markets in the United States and elsewhere, military intelligence officials said.

It shows the rebels are still able to pack a punch despite three years of government by Uribe, who has boosted military spending and troop numbers in a bid to defeat guerrillas who have been waging war here for 41 years.

Uribe's policy has been very popular, allowing him to plan to run for a second term next year.

Security has improved considerably in Colombia's major cities, and the country's homicide rate, one of the highest in the world, has fallen to about 20,000 a year from 30,000 when he took office. Kidnappings have plummeted by over 80 percent.

But critics such as left-wing presidential candidate Antonio Navarro say the FARC will never be defeated while most peasants are poor and tempted to either join rebel ranks or grow cocaine crops which buy guerrilla guns.

They point to the failure of the government to provide evidence that cocaine prices are rising in the United States, which would show the $3 billion-plus U.S.-backed program to destroy drug crops with aerial spraying is working.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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